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The mythology of Rosa Parks

IT IS REMARKABLE how often the legend survives the legendary figure. So it is with Rosa Parks.

The mythology describes the woman who died Monday at 92 as a ''humble seamstress." The textbooks pay homage to a ''simple woman" with tired feet whose refusal to give up her seat on the bus to a white man half a century ago sparked a movement. The eulogies cast her as the ''mother of the civil rights movement," as if it were an unplanned parenthood.

But the obituaries also suggest another side to her story. The ''humble seamstress" was a civil rights activist long before that fateful bus ride. The ''simple woman," secretary of her NAACP chapter, attended a leadership conference the summer before her act of civil disobedience. As for those tired feet? Parks herself wrote, ''The only tired I was, was tired of giving in."

Is it possible we prefer our heroes to be humble? Or is it just our heroines? In her lifetime, Rosa Parks was often left off the dais of civil rights ''leaders." In her death, she is lauded more as icon than as leader.

Al Sharpton, of all the un-humble politicians, praised Rosa Parks as someone who ''changed American life, having never held public office, having no political ambition, just her quiet dignity and courage." Is this how we praise women? As unambitious, accidental heroines?

The subject of women and leadership is in the air, not just on the air. I heard of Parks's death here at a gathering of the Atlanta Women's Foundation, which is partnering with the White House in a project to encourage women to fill leadership roles, especially along the political pipeline.

Two decades ago, the late Elizabeth Janeway, an intellectual doyenne of the women's movement, fantasized the first woman president. She would be a vice president chosen to ''balance" the ticket, a conservative Republican who ascends to the Oval Office denying any connection to feminism.

Today, television producers still must fantasize a ''Commander in Chief." Mackenzie Allen is also an accidental president, an independent who stood up for women by refusing to stand down from office. If, at times, the show is more about working motherhood than the presidency -- Lynette of ''Desperate Housewives" meets Mackenzie of White Househusbands -- is this the only place to ''see" a woman president?

Last weekend, Condoleezza Rice was in her hometown of Birmingham, Ala., marking another civil rights event -- the church bombing that killed four girls, including one of her friends. Rice may insist she is not running for office, but others saw that weekend as a screen test. As Rice herself said repeatedly: ''I can think of so many cases where things that seemed impossible one day seemed inevitable a bit later."

Meanwhile, in New York, Hillary Clinton says she is running for nothing but reelection to the Senate against the hapless candidacy of Jeanine Pirro. An entire library of books attack Hillary and then accuse her of being a polarizing figure. Nevertheless, every poll shows her as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president.

Both Hillary and Condi have done something new. They've passed the ''competence test," a bar set much higher for women. There are few, fans or foes, who deny that the senator and the secretary of state are qualified to run for the highest office. But what about the other test? How does the political imperative to be ambitious gel with the cultural imperative to be ''unassuming"? Does it put a brake on women who would be leaders?

Sally Weaver, the CEO of the Atlanta Women's Foundation, says we have to get over the ''deficit model" of leadership, a routine focus on what is missing in a woman. We need instead to encourage risk-taking.

Indeed, sometimes women are better at providing support for each other's disappointments than ambitions, better at offering comfort than at urging risk. There is something in the culture that still tells women to wait until they are asked -- to run, to lead. Something that praises us more for ''quiet dignity" than for dangerous acts of courage.

So we come back to Rosa Parks. ''Rosa Parks was not an accidental heroine," says Marie Wilson, head of the White House Project. In her time and place, Parks, too, was a polarizing figure. She was a leader whose beliefs were honed in a moral framework and whose courage was rooted in a political support system.

Rosa Parks was ''unassuming" -- except that she rejected all the assumptions about her place in the world. Rosa Parks was a ''simple woman" -- except for a mind made up and fed up. She was ''quiet" -- except, of course, for one thing. Her willingness to say ''no" changed the world.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is

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